Zimbabwe Police Raze Poor Towns In Rampage

A Zimbabwean woman watches bulldozers destroy her home outside the capital city of Harare. The crackdown on squatters has left tens of thousands homeless.
A Zimbabwean woman watches bulldozers destroy her home outside the capital city of Harare. The crackdown on squatters has left tens of thousands homeless. (By Howard Burditt -- Reuters)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 5, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe, June 4 -- Six days after teams of police officers ordered the residents of Hatcliffe Extension, a squatter village, to tear down their homes, the destruction still looks startlingly fresh, the former tenants dazed and weary.

Where houses once stood are piles of plastic sheeting and splinters of lumber. Shops built of concrete have been reduced to rubble. A Catholic day-care center for AIDS orphans has been destroyed. And the residents, worn out after days of living among the ruins and nights spent outside in the cold, sit mournfully among the shattered remnants of their lives.

"I have no options. I have nowhere to go," said Catherine Tangara, 58, a round-faced widow who cares for her four grandchildren because both of her daughters have died.

The story is the same in urban areas throughout Zimbabwe, an economically and politically troubled southern African country of 12 million. Thousands of police officers have spent the past two weeks on a rampage of destruction that officials call a campaign to clean up illegal housing and markets.

At least 22,000 street traders have been arrested, police said in government-owned newspapers, and tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. Though the full extent of the operation remains unknown, opposition leaders say as many as 1.5 million people in Harare alone may have lost their homes.

President Robert Mugabe has dubbed the campaign "Operation Murambatsvina," which the state-owned press translates as "Operation Restore Order" and portrays as a necessary effort to curb crime, garbage and the other excesses of rapid urbanization over the past several years. But in Shona, the dominant language in Zimbabwe, it has a more sinister translation, given that most of those targeted are poor: "Operation Drive Out the Rubbish."

In Hatfield Extension, more than 6,000 people lost their homes on police order last Sunday. No houses or shops remain standing, and a community mosque was destroyed.

"They said, 'If you refuse, we will whip you,' " said a 38-year-old widow who cares for her two children and her elderly mother on a modest income earned from sewing dresses and bedspreads. "Now everything is destroyed."

In neighborhood after neighborhood, truckloads of police officers have arrived in riot helmets and demanded that residents tear down their own homes, typically wood shacks or one-room concrete houses that shelter Zimbabwe's urban poor. Most people have complied with the police, attacking their homes with their bare hands or with picks and hammers that made the job quicker, if no less terrible.

Traders, meanwhile, have turned their own wooden stalls into kindling. In targeted areas across Harare, people can be seen sitting on piles of rubble, staring into space.

Many of the victims have already moved away from the urban areas, jamming their families and remaining possessions onto buses and returning to the rural areas where they grew up. Others have tried to make do where they are. Tangara, for instance, spent Sunday breaking her wood-and-cardboard home into pieces. Then she built a thigh-high shelter that is open on one side so that she and the children can crawl inside among some dirty pillows and worn blankets.

"It's so painful," Tangara said as one of the children stood wide-eyed beside her, "and so chilly."

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